Review

The Torment of Others

by Val McDermid



Why do we love to read about serial killers? From Jack the Ripper
to Silence of the Lambs, tales of these nightmarish
murderers seem to fascinate people, and for most of us this
predilection is embarrassingly out of character. Maybe they are a
safe way to explore dark, id-powered fantasies. Perhaps, in
confronting our worst fears, we hope to make it less likely that
something bad will actually happen. They also are a source of
comfort, a way to impose order on apparently chaotic sadism: There
is always a clever detective or investigator who figures out the
warped logic of the crimes and brings the perpetrator to
justice.

THE TORMENT OF OTHERS is Val McDermid's fourth novel about two such
experts: Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan and Dr. Tony Hill,
a clinical psychologist who is called in by the police to profile
serial killers. Set in the (fictional) bleak northern English city
of Bradfield --- mostly in the seamier neighborhood frequented by
prostitutes and drug dealers --- this book is a far cry from the
polite stately-home murders beloved of Agatha Christie and her ilk.
It is no less atmospheric, though; you can almost taste the bad
coffee, damp grayness, and ugly architecture of this former mill
town. McDermid is a realist, like another first-rate Scottish
suspense novelist, Denise Mina, and part of the fascination of her
cinema-verité mysteries is how deeply she embeds her
sharply drawn characters in an unpromising environment and draws a
kind of harsh music from it.

Jordan and Hill's relationship is not just professional; it's a
more serious version of the unconsummated mating dance performed by
Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis in the first two seasons of
"Moonlighting." (In fact, McDermid's books are the basis for a
British TV series, "Wire in the Blood," that turns up now and then
on the cable channel BBC America; it's an intelligent,
not-too-glamorized adaptation, and well worth watching.) DCI
Jordan's rigid self-control and extreme workaholism mean that her
longest-running relationship is with her cat. In THE TORMENT OF
OTHERS, moreover, she is particularly fragile because she was raped
while on undercover duty in a European operation (cf. the previous
Jordan/Hill book, THE LAST TEMPTATION). As for Dr. Hill, his
unhappy childhood and tortured personality (self-loathing,
impotence) make him lousy boyfriend material but great at hunting
serial killers: "Anyone examining [Tony's] own past would have
found a series of indicators that, in another man, would have been
the first steps on the tortuous route to psychopathy. For him, they
had provided the foundation of his empathy with those who had ended
up on a different path. … And just as the serial killer had a
sure instinct for his victims, so Tony had an apparent sixth sense
for tracking his prey."

The will-they-or-won't-they gavotte gives the book an extra
frisson, a line of suspense that parallels the main case under
investigation --- actually, two main cases: McDermid's plot
is nothing if not complicated.

DCI Jordan is summoned to head a special police unit --- in the
wake of the rape, this is supposed to be therapeutic --- with a
mandate to investigate unsolved crimes as well as take on fresh
ones. The old cases in THE TORMENT OF OTHERS (the title is from
T.S. Eliot's FOUR QUARTETS) involve two missing boys who turn out
to be the victims of a pedophile killer. The new, particularly
grisly murders target prostitutes, the twist being that the M.O. is
precisely the same as in a series of old killings. But since the
murderer confessed, and is now incarcerated in a mental
institution, he couldn't possibly have committed these more recent
crimes. Who did? All the unit's efforts come to nothing, so Carol's
boss orders her to organize a trap using one member of her team as
a phony prostitute --- the same sort of dangerous undercover
operation that had backfired on DCI Jordan herself. When the "bait"
is snatched, there is a race against time to find her before she
becomes another victim.

Because McDermid explicitly pits one intelligence against another
--- expertly alternating accounts of what the police and Dr. Hill
are doing to solve the case with chilling italicized passages that
let us inside the killer's mind --- the reader knows exactly what
the stakes are. What we don't know, until close to the end of the
book, is the identity of the murderer (if you can guess it, you're
good).

Often, writers who can handle complex plots are washouts as far as
character is concerned, but McDermid is strong on both counts. Even
the supporting roles in the book are beautifully, memorably
detailed: Members of the police team --- including opportunistic
Sam Evans; sad, unlucky Don Merrick; computer whiz Stacey Chen; and
Paula McIntyre, with her charm and ambition --- are as much a part
of the action as Carol and Tony. And the prostitutes, from young,
inexperienced Honey to hardened Dee, are more than faceless
victims. This gives the story a full-bodied, almost Dickensian
texture that is very satisfying.

Two caveats: First, if you're squeamish, go elsewhere. This is
explicit, violent stuff. Second, because to some extent McDermid
assumes knowledge of the previous Jordan/Hill books, I'd recommend
beginning with the first in the series, THE MERMAIDS SINGING (she
is also the author of several exceptional non-series thrillers,
notably A PLACE OF EXECUTION).

McDermid has written two other detective series, but they are in a
lighter vein (and I must confess that I couldn't finish the one
title I tried). In focusing on the darker side of human nature as
well as on the austere landscape of the urban north, she seems to
have found her natural territory. Read her for the fiendishly
devised puzzles as well as for the humanity and
three-dimensionality of the people she has created. THE TORMENT OF
OTHERS may be a guilty pleasure --- twisted, shivery, and not to be
indulged too late at night --- but it is a pleasure nonetheless:
the best of its genre.

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 23, 2011

The Torment of Others
by Val McDermid

  • Publication Date: April 28, 2005
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Minotaur Books
  • ISBN-10: 0312339194
  • ISBN-13: 9780312339197